Death at a Country Mansion
Welcome to Daisy Thorne's Ooh La La hair salon in the charming village of Edgemead in Surrey, England, where you'll find the latest styles, the juiciest gossip—and the most tantalizing murder clues . . .
No one would ever accuse famous opera star Dame Serena Levanté of lacking a flare for the dramatic. Unfortunately, it's curtains down on the dysfunctional diva when she's found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her elegant home. Solving an opera singer's murder may not be the typical hairdresser's aria of expertise. But Dame Serena was the mother of Daisy's best friend Floria, so Daisy must do-or-dye her best to get to the roots of the case.
When a priceless Modigliani painting in the house is reported missing, the mystery gets even more tangled. Even though the gruff but handsome Detective Inspector Paul McGuinness tells the stylist to stay out of his hair, Daisy is determined to make sure the killer faces a stern makeover—behind bars.
Release date: December 1, 2020
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 242
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Death at a Country Mansion
Louise R. Innes
The ice in her glass tinkled provocatively as the scotch hit it. Another marriage in tatters. Her fourth, in fact. Serena shook her head and took a big gulp, feeling the whiskey encase her in a golden glow as it went down. Bastard. How could Collin do this to her? With an air hostess, of all people. What the hell was he thinking?
She’d arrived home earlier that afternoon to find her husband packing. The lunch meeting with her solicitor had finished earlier than expected; otherwise she’d never have caught him.
“I’m leaving you, Serena.” He tossed shorts and T-shirts into his suitcase, then fumbled in his dresser for the sunscreen. “I wanted to avoid a confrontation, but you’re here, so you may as well hear it from me. You’re a drunk. You’ve made my life intolerable. I’ve had it with your bitching and sniping, not to mention your blatant attempts to seduce every red-blooded man who walks through the door. Christ, you’re an embarrassment.”
She’d been so stunned; she hadn’t known how to respond. Yes, her drinking had gotten out of hand lately, and she had tried to chat up that handsome, young musician at the summer party, but that was Collin’s fault for ignoring her. What did he expect her to do? He certainly didn’t touch her anymore.
He continued, “I’ve met someone, someone who appreciates me. We’re going to the house in the Bahamas. My solicitor will be in touch.” Collin hauled the heavy suitcase onto the landing. It was the beige one, the same one he’d had on their honeymoon.
Feeling a surge of rage, she’d stumbled after him. “What do you mean you’ve met someone? Who?”
“None of your business.”
“What do you mean it’s none of my business? You’re my husband, for Christ’s sake. Who is she?” She was screeching now, a horrid, high-pitched sound tinged with desperation.
“If you must know, her name is Bernadette, and she’s an air hostess. We met on my last trip to Paris.”
Serena stared at him. This couldn’t be happening. “How dare you walk out on me! And that’s my house in the Bahamas. I bought it and I forbid you to use it as a sordid shag pad.” Her voice rose hysterically, as it often did when she’d been drinking, and she’d had a bottle of sauvignon blanc with lunch.
He turned to face her, his voice unusually calm. Normally, they’d both be screaming at each other by now. “That’s rich, coming from you. And for your information, we put the Nassau house in my name, remember? For tax purposes. It’s mine now.” He smirked and picked up the suitcase to carry it downstairs.
The grand staircase was Serena’s favorite feature in the stately old mansion, and the main reason she’d bought it almost three decades before. It seemed like a lifetime. She adored the glorious mahogany balustrade with spiral spindles that Violeta, the housekeeper, kept polished to a high shine, and the soft lilac carpeting with gold strips. It reminded her of elegant Venetian palaces and old-fashioned grandeur. She’d once performed for a select group of guests, standing at the top of the grand staircase. The rapture on their faces as she sung Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” had made her heart soar.
Serena floundered after him, coming to an unsteady halt on the landing. “Please, Collin, don’t do this. Let’s talk about it.”
He’d glanced up, but instead of looking at her, his gaze rose to the portrait of the woman she’d once been, which hung above her head. That’s when she knew it was truly over. He couldn’t even look at her anymore. She turned up her face to the painting, grasping the balustrade so as not to lose her balance. It had been commissioned at the height of her fame, and the beautiful, serene expression on her face made her heart twist every time she saw it. She’d been so happy then. Life had been magical. Her records were selling, her concerts were sold out, everyone wanted a piece of her. How had it all gone so wrong?
“I didn’t want it to end like this, you know.” Collin’s face softened momentarily. “But you left me no choice. Living with you has become . . . impossible.”
At that point, she’d fallen to her knees, tears streaming down her face.
“I hope you find some peace, Serena.”
And he walked out of the house, pulling his suitcase behind him.
Serena hung her head and sobbed, great rasping sounds that resonated from the depths of her soul. The hand holding the tumbler drooped, spilling the drink on the Persian rug. She didn’t care. How had her life come to this?
Age was a bitch. Once she’d hit fifty, her voice had gone downhill, no doubt helped along by the booze and the screaming matches with her husband. But without her singing, she was nothing, just an empty shell, and no matter how much she drank or how many lovers she took, she couldn’t fill the void. Her laser-sharp soprano voice, which had once captivated the masses and enthralled royalty, was no more. She’d lost that iridescent quality that allowed her to scale the fearsome heights of the most physically demanding music. She poured another drink, then another. Eventually, the sought-after haze descended and her head lolled back onto the headrest of the chaise longue.
Serena woke with a start in the middle of the night and looked around in a panic. Where was she? Oh, yeah. She was still on the chaise longue, fully clothed.
What was that noise that had woken her? Was it the front door? She listened, holding her breath. The room swam in front of her eyes and her tongue was parched. A wave of nausea hit her and she bent over, fearing she might be sick. God, she’d polished off most of the scotch. That was heavy, even for her. There was a loud creak on the staircase. She recognized it. The loose board before the landing.
Someone was in the house.
She glanced around for a weapon, but all she could find was the empty whiskey bottle on the side table. Grabbing it by the neck, she stumbled toward the door. Her heart pounded as she peered onto the landing.
Relief flooded her body. “Oh, thank God, it’s you. You almost gave me a heart attack.”
She dropped her arm carrying the bottle, just as the intruder raised his.
Serena screamed as she realized what was happening. Then came the hammer blow. Her head exploded in pain and she fell to her knees. The room spun, she was so dizzy.
“Why?” She reached out, trying to grab something, anything to stabilize herself. Her hand folded around the balustrade.
The intruder lifted her to her feet, and for a moment she thought it might be okay, but then he bent her over the railing. Her hand tightened its grip as she flopped forward.
“No, please . . . ”
The intruder pried her fingers loose. It wasn’t hard; she had no strength left. Then she felt herself falling. It was a strange sensation, and for a fleeting moment she felt weightless and free. Then the air was knocked out of her and darkness descended.
Daisy was on her hands and knees weeding the garden when her mobile phone rang. It was the beginning of summer, and before she could plant the multitude of colorful potted geraniums she’d bought from the garden center, she first had to purge the beds of weeds. The pesky invaders seemed to have taken root in the spring, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather, and had multiplied at a speed to rival that of a time-lapse camera. The upbeat ringtone interrupted the audio lecture she was listening to on her iPad on the emotions of violent offenses, part of the forensic psychology degree she was studying via correspondence. She pulled off a well-used gardening glove to answer it.
“Daisy?” There was a loud sniff. “Oh, Daisy . . . ” Her best friend’s voice wobbled, and Daisy could hear she’d been crying. It wasn’t like Floria to get upset. She was normally such a positive, bubbly person. Something awful must have happened to reduce her to tears.
“Floria, what’s wrong?”
“It’s Mother. She–she’s dead.” The voice cracked.
“What?” Daisy thought she’d misheard. The audio recording was saying: In violent crime, feelings such as humiliation, righteousness, arrogance, ridicule, cynicism, defilement and vengeance give the offender the feeling that he or she has a moral right to attack. Daisy reached for her iPad and pressed Stop.
Floria’s voice was hollow. “Mother’s dead. She had an accident. Oh, Daisy, please, will you come to the house?”
“Of course. I’ll meet you there.”
Daisy didn’t need an explanation as to which house. Floria’s mother, Dame Serena Levanté, the famous opera singer—who had graced the pages of almost all of the tabloids at some point over the last twenty years—lived at Brompton Court, a stately home that lay halfway between Daisy’s small village of Edgemead and the slightly larger town of Esher in Surrey.
Heart pounding, she dashed inside and changed out of her dirty gardening clothes into fresh jeans and a blouse, only pausing to wash her hands and run a comb through her blond hair, which currently looked like it could rival the bird’s nest in the elm tree outside. What on earth had happened?
Serena dead? Floria had mentioned an accident. Had she had a car crash? Perhaps she’d been driving under the influence. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Daisy’s mind was racing as she jumped into her trusty Honda and reversed quickly out of the gravel driveway, nearly backing into Mr. Henderson’s flower delivery van, trundling up the road. He swerved onto the grassy verge to avoid her, then put his hand on the horn.
“Sorry, Frank!” she yelled out of the window as she sped off in the direction of Brompton Court.
Floria Levanté was a socialite and reformed wild child, as well as being one of Daisy’s closest friends. She still remembered how they’d first met. It was a funny story, and one they took great pleasure in reminiscing over, especially after a few drinks at the Fox and Hound, the local pub. It had been Ladies Day at the prestigious Ascot horse races about five years before. Floria had bounced into the salon to have her hair done and Daisy had tended to her. The moment they’d got chatting, Daisy had known Floria was a kindred spirit. She’d brought out the prosecco, and by the time Floria’s hair was done in a stylish updo and her Piers Atkinson attention-grabbing headpiece fixed stoutly into place, they were firm friends. She recalled giggling over the horses’ names on the race sheet Floria was studying.
“He was renamed Bunny Killer because he trampled over a bunny in his first race,” Floria explained, trying to keep a straight face. “I swear, it’s true. I know the trainer.”
“Look at this one,” said Daisy. “He’s called Badly. Can you imagine the commentator? ‘Here we have John Smith riding Badly.’” They went off into peals of laughter.
“Broomstick, now that’s a good name,” said Daisy. “Perhaps you should go for that one.”
“Sounds like the perfect horse for my mother,” remarked Floria, setting Daisy off again. Dame Serena was known to be a veritable witch at times, but that fact was carefully kept out of the papers, thanks to the Herculean efforts of her long-suffering publicity agent.
Floria convinced Daisy to join her and her friends at the races. At first she’d refused, not wanting to intrude, but thanks to the prosecco and Floria’s persuasive charm, she relented. So, after a manic dash home so Daisy could change, they’d caught a cab to Ascot. What Daisy hadn’t known at the time was that Floria ran with a very posh set of friends. All ex-public school girls who came from wealthy, Surrey middle-class families and worked part-time in Mayfair at art galleries, shopped in New Bond Street, and had memberships to private clubs. The men were university educated, with burgeoning careers in finance or banking in the City. Not the kind of crowd Daisy was used to hanging out with. However, once she got to know them, Daisy fitted right in. Her natural exuberance and easy sense of humor endeared her to all Floria’s friends. The Pimms flowed, the betting commenced, and by the end of a very long, boozy day, Daisy knew she’d made a friend for life.
Daisy raced up the extensive driveway to Brompton Court, her tires crunching and skidding on the gravel. The private lane wound through acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, tended to by the ever-diligent Pepe, and opened into a gravel car park in front of the house. The midmorning sun shone directly onto the stone Palladian mansion, bathing it in a soft, golden hue. Usually, Daisy paused to admire the shimmering façade which never ceased to take her breath away, but today she was distracted by the flashing lights of the ambulance and several police cars outside.
Floria was deep in conversation with a tall, broad-shouldered man holding a notepad. A plainclothed detective, no doubt. Daisy was surprised by his casual attire: dark-blue jeans and a beige T-shirt straining across the shoulders as if complaining about the detective’s bulk. He really needed a bigger size. It was a far cry from the formal suit and tie her grandfather used to wear when he was in the CID, but then, that was twenty years ago, and it was the weekend. His expression was serious, bordering on annoyed, as if he didn’t appreciate being called out on a beautiful Sunday morning at the beginning of summer. He glanced up as Daisy approached.
Floria threw herself into her friend’s arms. “Oh, Daisy. Can you believe it? Mother’s dead.”
Daisy hugged her, worried by how tightly Floria clung to her. After she’d disentangled herself, she stretched out an arm toward the officer. “Hello, I’m Daisy Thorne.”
The detective gave a curt nod and returned the handshake. It was firm and brief. A no-nonsense handshake like his demeanor. “DI Paul McGuinness, Surrey CID. Are you related to Miss Levanté?”
“No, I’m her best friend.”
He glanced from one to the other, frown lines on his brow. He was sizing them up. Most people did when they went out together. Similar in looks, they both had pale blond hair and blue eyes, but while Daisy was tall and lanky, Floria was of average height and curvy. She’d made an excellent Marilyn Monroe at last year’s Hollywood-themed ball. Daisy had gone as Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, complete with yellow jumpsuit.
Daisy shot him a coquettish smile, but it didn’t have the desired effect. It seemed the gruff detective was immune to her charms or deliberately ignoring them. He returned an icy stare. “I’m sorry, Miss Thorne, but this is an active crime scene and you can’t be here.”
Floria gripped her friend’s hand. Daisy gave it a reassuring squeeze. There was no way she was leaving. Floria needed her as never before, and it would take more than the detective’s arctic stare and terse words to intimidate her.
“I’m needed for moral support, Detective Inspector,” said Daisy firmly. “Can’t you see Floria is distraught?”
Her friend’s lip quivered obligingly. “I don’t have anyone else to call. My father lives in France and I have no siblings. Please, let her stay?”
The detective inspector stared at them for a moment, then obviously decided to let it slide. He changed tack, turning his attention back to the investigation. “Where is Dame Serena Levanté’s husband?”
Daisy pursed her lips. “Collin? I don’t know. Isn’t he here?”
Floria welled up. “I haven’t seen him. Every time I close my eyes I see Mother lying at the foot of the stairs.” She turned to Daisy. “Oh, Daisy, it was too terrible. I saw her body . . . lying there . . . staring up at the ceiling.... Her eyes were still open.” A shudder ran through her voluptuous frame.
Daisy reached out and hugged her again, holding her close while DI McGuinness made a note in his little . . .
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